Saturday, 4 January 2014

photographing winter landscapes - let's break some rules

There are certain truisms in photography. Or, rather, there are certain things that many photographers take to be truisms. Rules that should be used and broken at your own risk. Or at least at the risk of making a "poor" photograph and being mocked or otherwise criticized by the know it alls on certain Internet fora.

Some of these truisms, or rules, have to do with composition. For instance, it is suggested that a photograph, like any other work of art, have a focus of some sort. There are various planes in a picture where the focus should be located (thinking rule of thirds, etc here) in order for the eye to naturally fall into place and draw people into the picture.

Some of these have to do with light. Make sure your subject is well lit, don't shoot into the light, don't shoot in harsh mid-day light, avoid "bad" weather, always use the "golden hour" light, etc.

The problem is, if these rules are slavishly followed, the world seen in pictures becomes incredibly boring and dull. Pictures take on a certain sameness (to use a cursed "ness" word, but one which fits in its blandness - hah! - of the subject I am discussing, namely generic-yawn-I-think-I-saw-that-picture-before-somewhere pictures).

So why do we have these rules then? Because they work. They create a working picture. One which hits the check boxes of those obsessed with check list based accomplishments. A picture which fits into the continuum of the development of pictures as art. These rules are a great thing to learn and use when learning how to frame and build a picture.

However, for something to really resonate, things need to be shaken up.

So here is what I suggest you do if you want to shake up your photography in winter.

First, figure out what it is that you are going to photograph before you leave the house. A directionless approach to picture taking often results in good pictures happening by mistake or not happening at all. Pictures end up being lifeless and dull and lacking in focus. For me, personally, it becomes very important to think about what my goal is in the winter when I head out to shoot since winter can be seen to be a dull time for taking pictures. That idea could not be further from the truth. My goal for the pictures I am sharing today, and for this blog entry, was to capture the essence of a rural winter. I want you to feel cold. This dictates what lenses I will use, what apertures I will use, where I will go, and what, broadly speaking, my subject matter will be.

cold and alone

Second, choose your lenses with care. I break with some common wisdom when I take landscape pictures. I use the Olympus/Panasonic micro 4/3 system and have lenses ranging from 12 to 75mm in my personal lens stock. For those not familiar with m4/3, this gives a field of view similar to 24 to 150mm in "full frame" (35mm film) terms.

I primarily shoot landscapes using my 45mm or 75mm prime lenses. This series uses the 75mm exclusively.

Why use tele lenses for landscape work? This has primarily to do with where I live. It is fairly built up, and since my goal is to shoot a rural winter, and I want to largely avoid human made things, I need a tele lens to isolate my subject matter. This is a personal choice for the project I have given myself this winter and one that works for me. Also, I tend to prefer landscapes which drill down a bit and focus in on one aspect of what is in front of the photographer. If a landscape is very broad, I may be impressed with it, but a connection with the place as a place falls away.

Third, give your picture some sort of focal point. The series I am working on this winter has to do largely with isolated trees in a rural farm setting. I am trying, when I can, to create depth by having big sky, stark fields, and isolated trees as focal points. The sky should be textured, and the ground work in layers. Shot on a diagonal, farm fields will often give a zig zag effect which draws the eyes deep into the picture. Force of habit sees me making much use of the rule of thirds, but I am working on breaking this in my own work.

The focal point here are the twin trees picture right. Between them, they split the viewer's focus sending the eye out of the picture, and deeper into it along the line of trees into the distance.
Fourth, break the lighting rules. Beat on them. Shoot into the sun at mid day. Just do it. Some of the best light can be had when this is done. This is particularly true if your area has been blessed with an ice storm, heavy snow afterwards, and big wind. We have been so blessed.

Harsh glare, big textured sky, obvious rolling hills, and a lightly treed fence line make this work for me.

Fifth, post process your work. Snow is not white. Not really. Often, it comes across as blue or gray due to the highly reflective nature of snow and what the sky of the day gives. Play with the blues!!! I often up contrast, and deepen the blacks when faced with a seemingly featureless landscape. Sometimes, the most dramatic pictures are pictures of nothing that have been processed in a way to draw your eyes into what is really there.

Was this really this blue? No. Was it close? Very. By pumping up the darks a bit, layers appeared which add depth to a landscape that at first glance was completely featureless.
Again, to draw out the texture, processing was used. Remember, your focal point does not have to be in your face for it to work.          

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